Just before the beginning of the Michaelmas term, I attended the Archiving the Soundscape workshop run at the Wellcome Institute in London by the Soundscapes in the Early Modern World project.

The first speaker was Richard David Williams, who talked about recalling traces of sound in Hindi manuscripts from the Wellcome Collection. My attempts to take notes on this session were somewhat hindered by the fact that I was privileged to be asked to live tweet the session on behalf of the project!  Nevertheless, it was really interesting.  As well as looking at various song books, he considered a sexological herbal from 1738 which includes treatments for the voice, because the voice is an instrument of seduction! One promised to help you sing like a celestial angel!  Williams noted the specificity of the recipe alongside the hyperbole of the claims it made.  When looking at the medical treatises as a whole, sound comes across in several ways – as a symptom of a problem (diagnosis) and part of the solution (cure).

One of the problems with working with these sources was vocabulary in translation and across time. He pointed out that Hindi includes lots of specific words for sounds with very precise meanings, but it’s hard to know if they mean the same now as they did in the past.  Also, they don’t translate well into English.

Flask lighting at the Wellcome

Next to speak was Louise Marshall, who talked about ‘Reverb: how contemporary sonic theory can resonate the past’.  The excitement about sound is mitigated by the lack of audible historic traces of sound before the development of recording technology.  Even that is not without problems of analysis.   Marshall talked about the idea of noisy objects.  The residue can be accessed through various methodologies.  She raised parallels with early documents which contain residues of bubonic plague, and later ones contain morphine residues which have been discovered through protein research.  Likewise, she argued that sound leaves traces – psychologists and philosophers talk about the continual referencing backwards of language and sound.  So she suggested that contemporary sound theory might help with historic sound studies and described the difference between listening and hearing, quoting Pauline Oliveres who defined and created the practice of Deep Listening.  This is a practice of sonic awareness, which can be used to elucidate networks, inaudible frequencies, and sound spaces. Hearing comes before listening and is a physiological process, whereas listening follows and is mediated. Sound is not simply sound. It is processed, is subject to power, relationships, etc. She pointed out that sonic worlds are not parallel worlds, they need to be legitimised in a real landscape, because the space in which we experience sound affects us too.

Next was Jennifer Richards speaking about Animating Texts and a Wellcome Collection case study, presenting research on behalf of a larger group of scholars.  The paper was about a digital archive.  She is interested in the relationship between digital and print versions of rare books and the voice, which is rarely thought about in relation to the book and digital archive. She argued that the best means of communication was and is the human voice and the digital can help us to recover that too, and experience it again.   The human voice can change the meaning and our understanding of the words.

Jennifer is co-lead on the Animating Text projects – ATNU – which asks the question ‘what is text in a digital age?’ She talked us through various aspects of the project, including an animated woodcut, and changing voices on a Tudor Latin schoolroom to see how volume, timbre, voice and pace affect us. She explained how she had been asked to do ‘something’ with a sample text from the Wellcome Collection- Gabriel Frend’s ‘Of the winter quarter’.  Books in the 16th century were not just objects to be held, but also heard and a record of who had used it, and her work aimed to reflect this. She argued that a book can be marked with the voice as well as by pens.

Close up of the flasks…

The third speaker was Professor Thomas Schmidt talking on ‘Beyond Notation: early modern music manuscripts as repositories of sound’.  Sounds perish because they cannot be written down, while notation is a memory aid to potentially recreate the ‘real’ music – the sound.  So in what other ways might sound have been recorded in the archive – written descriptions and visual images, for example.

But he also wanted to think about what the music books themselves can tell us?  Size and layout can tell us important things about the way that items were used and therefore the soundscape of that use. They tell us how many people could use the book, how they would be laid out and therefore how people would be able to sing or play from them.  For example, table books mean you have to sit around a smallish table – you make music not only with each other but at each other, while an audience is at best incidental in this intimate sound world. The early modern period is full of images of people grouped closely round a table.

Thomas reminded us that the composite sound of polyphony is made up of individual parts held in separate objects – the physical and conceptual units are separate. The objects have their own implications. For example the chant books have to be large and elevated as there is only one object which they all have to use. So the physicality of experiencing a performance from a large chant book placed on one of the remaining chant book lecterns is interesting. They have an effect on the sound that is created – the singers stand close together looking upwards, which sounds very different to modern choirs who stand in a row looking down at their own copy. Yet there are some chansonniers which are too small to be intended for performance, so what was their purpose?  Were they intended to be studied, meditated upon, carried around or copied?  So size has a huge impact on the way that books are used, and Thomas argued that sound is stored in them in this way.

It was a fascinating afternoon, where so many different times, places and spaces were brought together, giving us lots to think about.